MARTIN AMIS'S NIGHT Train is being billed as a kind of serious author's holiday, a genre vacation between his thick, clever, mostly "serious" works. The Brit press has been roasting him for it; well, they can stuff it. Other serious novelists take a little time off now and then, and there are certainly those of us who prefer what Graham Greene called his "entertainments" to his longer, presumably less entertaining books.
And Night Train is, if nothing else, entertaining. It's easier to digest than anything he's done since Money; one would like to see all future Amis novels so devoid of digressions and irritating, nonessential minor characters. The principals, particularly Detective "Mike" Hoolihan--the quotes around that name come from the fact that the detective is female--are crisp and interesting. Night Train is a detective story about the suicide or murder of a young woman who had everything everyone around her wanted: beauty, wit, vivacity, health, a stimulating career. She's found with a gun in her mouth; that's suicide. But forensics indicate that three shots were fired; that has to be murder. Doesn't it? The solution to the death is original while remaining faithful to classic murder-novel conventions.
This last point is no small one; as Borges (a lover of detective stories himself, though of the more phantasmagorical stripe) once noted, the American detective story is generally disappointing precisely because its solutions don't satisfy the curiosity that the plot has stirred. Yet the conclusion to Night Train is, oddly, more intriguing than its plot.
Night Train is a disappointment for other reasons. Amis has never been much interested in character motivation and plot, which aren't considered major virtues in an era when technique holds court, but at the kids' table of crime fiction they're rather essential. You feel as if Amis does care about his characters in Night Train, perhaps more than he's cared about most of those in his previous novels--certainly more than in his last novel, The Information, which seemed to be written only to humiliate its subjects (and their real-life analogues). But he ultimately fails to give voice to that concern.
Night Train feels rootless: Mike is convincing as neither a woman nor an American, and the unnamed city Amis places her in gives off no heat. (One suspects it's a pastiche of American big cities that Amis has glimpsed fleetingly from hired cars during book tours.) It's true that Elmore Leonard, one of Amis's professed idols, also doesn't waste time in description of local fauna, but with Leonard's deft brushstrokes he doesn't need a lot of time to make you feel as if you're in a particular place. Amis, by contrast, takes a lot of time in Night Train making you feel like you're in no particular place at all.
The city in Night Train is like Gertrude Stein's oft-cited Oakland: There's no there there. "The atmosphere in these stories," sniffed Borges, referring to classic American crime novels, "is disagreeable." Yes, that's what we want: a disagreeable atmosphere. The atmosphere in Night Train is all too agreeable: For all the anguish over the dead girl, one never feels that there's anything much at stake. And, for once, Amis seems to understand that he's operating on empty. To cover the deficiencies, the author doesn't pour on the pyrotechnics, but instead falls back on the mechanics of the murder-mystery plot--a peculiar homage to Leonard, whose books (like most of Dashiell Hammett's) aren't mysteries but thrillers. It comes as something of a surprise to find that Amis can, in fact, write a well-plotted novel, but the result leaves us feeling like the producer in the recent Spice Girls movie who declares, "That was perfect, without actually being very good."
Amis may not like it, but the author Night Train draws most comparison with is Raymond Chandler, for whom Amis has a well-known contempt. The book's best lines--"Guys? She combed them out of her hair," and "You wouldn't pray for a body like that--but something was wrong with it. It was dead"--sound more like Chandler than Leonard, as does Mike Hoolihan's Philip Marlowe-like narration. "Suicide is the night train," she tells us, "speeding your way to darkness... this train takes you into the night, and leaves you there."
And so in Night Train, Amis has taken his own experimental journey into genre fiction, only to discover halfway there that he didn't understand his destination. But even critically acclaimed authors have tickets to punch and contracts to fulfill. Lucky man to get his experimental failures between hard covers.